On Inauguration Day, President Joe Biden wasted no time in taking action, signing 17 executive orders. For those of us who care deeply about our wild forests, there was one piece in particular that had us clapping. As part of the “Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” President Biden directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to immediately review a rule finalized in October, “Special Areas; Roadless Area Conservation; National Forest System Lands in Alaska.” Essentially, this means that the Forest Service will be taking the first step toward restoring protections for our largest national forest, the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.
What is “roadless area conservation”? Twenty years ago, the Clinton administration finalized a key rule that protected wild areas in our national forests. Following feedback from 1.6 million Americans, the regulation, which protected still-wild areas of our national forests from “road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting,” in total safeguarded 58.5 million acres. Known as the Roadless Rule, this important conservation tool has ensured that our wildest and most awe-inspiring spaces wouldn’t suffer from traffic, vehicle noise pollution, or water pollution from vehicle oil and grease.
Beyond that, the Roadless Rule protects these acres from industrial timber harvesting so our forests can grow naturally with different aged trees growing near each other and undergrowth thriving. The larger the roadless area, the more uninterrupted habitat there is for wildlife. This is particularly important for species that need a larger area, such as wolverines who can travel 15 miles a day in search of food, or mountain lions who can range up to 370 square miles. In the case of the latter, most people would rather have the mountain lion range further from their backyards! In addition, prime locations for backcountry recreation have thrived, much to the delight of hikers, climbers, folks who enjoy fishing, snowshoers and cross country skiers.
For people adjacent to these important areas, this protection is priceless. More than 149 million visitors used national forests in FY2019, and nearly half of all visitors came from within 50 miles of those public lands. That means locals’ full enjoyment of these natural spaces are, in part, dependent on this rule. Whether you’re heading off with fishing poles, hiking gear, or a backcountry permit, this regulation means you can truly and fully lose yourself in nature for a couple hours or a few days.
But the full application of the Roadless Rule was put into question in October 2020. The Trump administration finalized a decision that removed these protections from the Tongass National Forest, often called the “crown jewel” of the national forest system.
Now President Biden has started the unravelling process from that ill-conceived decision. With the president’s executive order, the Forest Service will review the decision. Assuming that agency decides the rollback was a bad call, it will likely need to begin a new rulemaking process to reinstate the rule.
Alternatively, there is another path to reinstating protections. Environment America joined Alaskan tribes, southeast Alaskan small businesses, and a coalition of environmental groups to sue the Trump administration in an attempt to stop roads and logging operations from moving forward. If that lawsuit is decided in our favor, the rule’s protections could be immediately reinstated.
To avoid the yo-yo effect of one president rescinding and another reinstating protections for wild areas in our national forests, Congress must pass the Roadless Area Conservation Act. Doing so would upgrade the Roadless Rule from an agency regulation into an enshrined law. This would protect it from political winds and ensure that it, along with the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, serves as a staple of America’s commitment to protecting our health and wild places.
The Roadless Rule has saved wildlife, preserved clean water sources, and provided the stage for thousands of hours of recreation and outdoor endeavours for the last 20 years. We must keep it that way for generations to come.